HIS GRACE IS [ENOUGH; AS MUCH AS IS NEEDED]

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What was going on during the 400 years between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament?  I don’t know a lot about that period of history, but I do know that the Jewish religious leaders spent a lot of their time adding details to the ten laws God had given them to insure everyone was following them in the strictest sense.  “Don’t pick up your mat on the Sabbath” – they decided that was work.  “Don’t pick one piece of grain from the field on the Sabbath” – they decided that was harvesting, thus it was work.”  By the time they were done adding minute details to insure compliance, there were thousands of laws the Jewish people had to keep track of.  There must have been a shared belief that it was possible to be in complete obedience to God’s Laws if they could list all the behaviors they considered to be in violation and punish those who did not comply.  Without considering all of the theological and historical facts of what was actually going on, that’s my simplistic take on what they were trying to do.  They just kept burdening the people by adding more and more details to the Law. 

Mark 3:2-6 ESV – “And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

It is easy for us to see the error of the religious leaders.  But adding rules and requirements to God’s gift of salvation is something most of us regularly do, though it is generally less obvious to us.  We accept Christ’s payment of our sin debt as a gift initially, but as we live out our faith, we unwittingly add “details” and expect ourselves and others to comply with our ideas of Godly behavior.  I often find myself calculating the hours I spend reading my Bible or praying to insure I am devoting enough time to my relationship with God – what “enough time” is I’m not sure.  I worry that I haven’t found a meaningful way to serve others: proof that I am not yet worthy of being His child.  Grace IS amazing and I have to remind myself every day that I don’t have to add anything to it.  Of course, I need to be doing – but living out the love I have for God is not the same as the misguided notion that what I am doing is earning my salvation.  

Ephesians 2:8-10 – “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Almost every day I read something about things we must include in our Christian walk to assure us of our salvation.  A Pentecostal friend doubts my salvation because I don’t speak in tongues.  I ran across a website that says being baptized isn’t simply an act of obedience but a requirement for salvation.  Churches often adopt a written statement of how its members will conduct themselves, listing behaviors that they will and will not engage in.  For grace to be free, and His Word assures us that it is, there can be no signs or behaviors required, except this one:  to believe that Jesus is God in human form and that His death is the only way we can be made righteous before God and thereby be reconciled to Him.  Period. 

Romans 11:6But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”

It’s easy to tell others all of the things we stopped or started doing as a result of our relationship with Christ.  But when non-believers, new Christians or unlearned believers hear these things, they conclude that God loves us based on the things we do or do not do.  They cannot separate these things from the concept of grace that we try to explain.  Just as the Pharisees kept the Jewish people accountable for every detail of the Law, those we are trying to help find Christ believe they must be “in compliance” with the “laws” we hold about following Christ and know they will fail, so they choose not to take part.  How much better if Christians talked as much about free grace as we do about acceptable behavior – or better yet, provide examples of God’s grace through our own lives. 

Psalm 14:2-3 – “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”

In order to appreciate this amazing free gift of grace, we need to understand how God views Sin.  Once we understand how vile it is to Him, we begin to understand what is so amazing about His grace.  Think about forgiving a murderer for killing an innocent child, then take it to the next level – pay his debt to society for him; serve his prison sentence even when it means you will be executed for the crime. We murder our relationship with God when we choose Sin over Him.  We are the murderer taking from God what He loves.  Our sentence was death but God paid it, not simply by forgiving us but actively paying the debt required.

Once we comprehend God’s grace to us, there is another challenge:  extending God’s grace to others, again, not as a requirement of salvation but as a way to show others the extent of God’s love for us.  While we may find extending mercy – the opposite side of the grace/mercy coin – a bit easier because it is deciding NOT to do what we feel we have a right to do, grace modeled on God’s example requires action most often in direct opposition to what our human nature wants to do. God’s grace isn’t merely a decision to forgive us when we don’t deserve it.  He DID something – He left His glorious home and came to earth where He suffered rejection, humiliation, and a painful death.  God’s example of grace is the model for our treatment of those who have wronged us – to do the unexpected, something non-believers would deem “over-the-top” – forgive the murderer, sure, but how about developing a relationship with him because he doesn’t know Christ; forgive the woman at work who stole your idea and, as a result, got that promotion, but also send her a card or a gift congratulating her, knowing God is in control of your life and your rewards are eternal.  Once we grasp the extent of God’s grace to us and stand in genuine awe of it, over-the-top behavior can become our new normal.  What a difference that would make in our world!

“Amazing grace, …  saved a wretch like me.”

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BEING STILL IN 2014

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In December, 2009, I committed to reading the Bible in its entirety.  During 2010, I simply read straight through it; I began in Genesis and ended with The Revelation.  I remember that much of the time I felt confused and lost, not understanding much of what I was reading, unable to connect all the dots.  But I also remember how clear it was that I had a lot in common with the people I was reading about. One after the other, I saw how I was like them in so many ways.  I found comfort in knowing they were not perfect people; relieved to see all their faults, weaknesses, and failures.  As I learned more about these people, I understood that God loved me in spite of the mess I had made of my life just as He loved these people in spite of all they had done.  I was hooked.  Reading the Bible was no longer a chore – I looked forward to the time I spent each day discovering new things about the God I thought I knew. I’m not sure if I understood that recognizing these things was one of the ways God was “talking” to me but I was learning things I had never known before and couldn’t stop reading.  The line of communication between me and God was no longer one-way – I had opened the door for Him to speak directly to me.

Each year since then I followed different reading plans to help insure I read the Bible each day and to read it completely through each year.  In 2011 I utilized The Legacy Reading Plan, which grouped the books of the Bible based on things like genre, author and context.  The 3rd and 4th year I followed chronological plans which allowed me to read events in the Bible in the order they happened (as much as can be determined). During those years, I supplemented each plan with books by Biblically-sound authors, commentaries, studies, sermons and articles.  My goal was to learn everything I could so I would be able to answer any question about the Bible that anyone might ask.   I wanted to know the events and people backward and forward. 

I struggled for several weeks to find a plan with a different emphasis for 2014.  Then, as He has done many times in the last 4 years, God thumped my noggin and pointed out to me that I had allowed reading the Bible to become little more than an intellectual exercise.  I seldom used the time to listen for God’s messages to me.  I had lost sight of the fact that each time I sit down with His Word, God wants to say something unique to each one of us.  It was right for me to want to learn things – doctrine, theology, historical events and facts.  But I had let learning facts become THE reason I read His Book.  I did not spend much time listening for the things He longed for me to know. 

So, this year is different.  This year my primary resource for reference and study is God. My goal is not to add to what I have learned about doctrine, theology, and history; although I am still learning something about those things as I hear from God.  I pray fervently before reading that God will open my eyes, ears and heart to what He has to say to me.  I am recording the thoughts that dominate my mind as I read – that is how I hear Him. The thoughts are clear and they come to my mind repeatedly. I anticipated there might be days when He would not give me a clear message, but as of this writing, that has not happened.  Each day as I read God has given me a clear understanding of a passage and I have never been confused or left to wonder about what He is saying to me.

John 8:31-32So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth…”

This last week I was reading a Scripture from Philippians – my “book of the month.”  I read a passage and an understanding came to my mind.  I immediately wanted to grab a commentary to find out if my understanding was “correct.”  But, as long as the thought I have does not contradict God’s character or His message as a whole, I can know that what I “hear” is from God.  It is easy to be led astray if we don’t allow ourselves to hear God’s message when He is trying to correct or rebuke us.  It’s tempting to take passages out of context to justify sin in our lives or defend choices that aren’t in keeping with God’s commands. While Satan cannot enter our minds, he has planted deceptions in the world that lead us to believe contradictory beliefs are from God. When this happens in my life, I feel unsettled and find myself arguing with myself.  When I experience those feelings, I go back to the passage, re-read it and wait for a new understanding that is from God.

Hebrews 4:12 “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

The insight to the Philippians passage brought me great peace and helped settle a question I have had on my heart for some time now.  As I write out the thoughts God lays on my heart and expand the ideas He presents to me, I learn so much about God, about me, and about living life in a way that’s pleasing to Him.  So far it’s been an amazing process and I feel a deeper love for my Father! This “reading plan” has confirmed to me that God communicates with us in a very real way.  It also highlights for me how important it is to take time to listen – get rid of all the noise that prevents us from hearing Him and connect with Him every day.  How amazing that the Creator of the universe wants this kind of relationship with us and that He provided a way to speak to us directly.  How sad it makes me that so many don’t have this experience or dismiss the reality of my experience as a myth or some sort of fanaticism.  God is in the world, He is living and He wants to be a part of our lives.  Open that Bible and let God talk to you!

1 Corinthians 2:13 “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual”

For those who might be struggling to “understand” what you are reading, I pray you will not become discouraged.  Often this is the reason people stop picking up their Bibles.  But, when the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we can know that we will understand exactly what God wants us to know at the time He wants to reveal it to us.  A thought about what we’re reading might not come for an hour or two after reading it – perhaps it will even take a day or two.  But always read, and then think on the passage throughout the day.  Pray before, during and after your reading time for God to open your eyes, ears and heart.  If you’re a new believer and want to discuss something God has revealed to you, be sure to ask a trusted believer, to seek out trusted authors, preachers or teachers.  Just keep in mind that God will reveal things to you in His time, not ours.  My daughter and I are often amazed at how often we read a passage or a Scripture that we have read many, many times but our present reading of it yields new understanding – perhaps we’re understanding it for the first time.  But God speaks to us when He is ready to speak about something – not when we want Him to.  We are always amazed at how His timing coincides with the circumstances in our lives.  There are still passages that haven’t been made clear to me but I know in God’s time He will speak to me when I need the message in my life to accomplish His purposes.  He will do the same for you. 

“Each time he listens to the word of the Father, or asks the Father to listen to his words, he dares not begin his Bible reading or prayer without first pausing and waiting, until the soul be hushed in the presence of the Eternal Majesty.” – Andrew Murray, Abiding in Christ

A LITTLE TOO CHRISTIAN

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Some years ago I was with my daughter and her in-laws at a local Farmer’s Market.  As we passed through a sizeable crowd my daughter and I got separated.  When she found me she said, “Well, that was pretty sad.  I just heard a woman coming out of that store say, ‘That was a little too Christian.’”   We weren’t sure what had happened but wondered what someone might have done that could be deemed “too Christian.”  Had someone been too honest?  Too nice?  Too accommodating?  Too helpful?  The incident has stayed with me over the years.  Whatever it was, that person did something that was so opposite of what the world expected that it struck a nerve.  It still troubles me that the witness viewed the actions as negative rather than behavior we should aspire to.

Four or five years later I still wonder what transpired in that little market but know it could not have been too weighty.  A crowd didn’t gather, there was no screaming or yelling.  Perhaps someone returned money or excused someone for excessive rudeness.  As small as the incident had to have been, I wonder what this woman’s reaction would be to the mother who forgives the man that murdered her child; the husband who forgives his wife for infidelity; the man who spends his last dime to help someone he barely knows.  Most of us have a mental list of behaviors we deem nice enough or that we are willing to forgive; we also have a list of behaviors we feel are too tolerant, too risky, or that should not be forgiven.  As Christians, we are to follow God’s direction regarding our behavior.  As we work to implement these into our lives, we must remember that our culture will not understand them; most are deemed to be unreasonable and too much to expect from any human being.

Matthew 6:15 “But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

I love the back story about Peter asking Christ how often we are to forgive.  The Jewish practice was three total offers to forgive (Job 33:29; Amos 2:4, 6).  In Peter’s typical impulsive manner, he graciously asserts that perhaps seven times would be more in keeping with Jesus’s teachings.  But Jesus provides an answer I imagine Peter probably felt was unreasonable:  we are to forgive 70 x 7 times.  Jesus was telling Peter that we are to forgive others an infinite number of times.  We are not to keep track – forgive each time we are wronged with no regard to the type of offense and no regard for how many times we have had to forgive any particular person.  This is how our heavenly Father forgives us.  I am very thankful that God is not keeping a tally sheet of the times He has forgiven me – I passed 490 times a long, long time ago!  Nor is He listing my behaviors in columns titled “Not So Bad,” Really Bad,” or “Almost Too Bad to Forgive!”  I have a lot that would fall under this third column.

While I struggle with expressing Godly love, I do not struggle with the idea of forgiveness.  God has forgiven me of some terrible things and I need that forgiveness, so must I forgive others.  I somehow understand that even the most wretched and horrible person was not born that way.  Something in their life happened – perhaps it was bad nurturing, maybe mental illness, natural desires that are difficult to control.  That is not to say I condone sinful behavior – even the smallest sin is reprehensible to God, thus it is repulsive to me – nor do I believe it is necessary to continue interacting with anyone who continues to wreak havoc in our lives.  Forgiveness doesn’t require either of these.  But forgiveness does demand I recognize my own sinfulness and that we all need Jesus. I don’t stop needing Him after I have accepted Him.  When I look at my fellow sinners, I see someone God can save and I must be available for God to use to accomplish that, I must pray for them without regard to what they are doing.  Jesus is the only way to truly and permanently change the human heart.

The Sermon on the Mount provides us with a list of behaviors Jesus expects us to implement into our Christian lives.  They are principles the world finds unreasonable.  But when we can read this sermon without dismissing any and see the benefits we will gain from adopting them, why they are right, we are coming to a fuller understanding of God.  In his lesson “The Sermon on the Mount” (at www.Bible.org) Bob Deffinbaugh writes: “In this day and age, when we in the church seem to be looking more and more like the society around us, there may be no better medicine than the Sermon on the Mount. It describes what human life and human community look like when they come under the gracious rule of God … Different … not the same….  We should note that the beatitudes do not refer to different groups of people as if some are merciful, others are peacemakers, and still others are called upon to endure persecution. Rather, this is a beautifully poetic way of describing the qualities of a kingdom citizen. All these qualities are to characterize each of His people.

Some have taken the beatitudes (and in fact the whole sermon) as a description of what one must do in order to enter the kingdom of God. …This cannot be further from the truth. It is clear from the text that Jesus is describing the qualities and duties of those already in the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is not a presentation of the gospel telling one how to get saved. As Dr. S. Lewis Johnson has humorously pointed out, when the Philippian jailer asked the apostle Paul, “what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), Paul did not reply with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Sermon on the Mount is not how to get into the kingdom, but how you are to be because you are in the kingdom.”

Living our lives as directed in the Sermon on the Mount is difficult because it is against human nature– in the world’s eyes, they are all “a little too Christian.”  But Jesus isn’t in the business of offering suggestions.  We are to work towards making them a part of our daily lives, our chosen responses.  And because they are not behaviors that we can adopt naturally, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to help us.  When we exhibit these behaviors our testimony is strengthened and we have the blessings Jesus promises in the second half of each beatitude.  At work I am often challenged because my passionate love for Jesus leads me to respond in unexpected ways.  Some days I handle these situations better than others.  On bad days, I often think that I’m wasting my time.  It seems much more acceptable for people to growl at each other and make rude remarks.  On those days I entertain the thought that since my efforts are viewed as insincere or hypocritical anyway, I might as well give up and act like the people around me.  But God reminds me that my standard of behavior is not other people.  I can’t give in to wanting to be accepted or to criticism.  My standard of behavior is Jesus.  There are no exceptions and no wiggle room.  I cannot justify bad behavior by explaining to God that His requirements aren’t acceptable to the people around me, that they might find them a little “too Christian.”

Matthew 10:34-36 – “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”

There are people in society that many have decided we should not waste our time on.  But we are not the ones to decide to give up on anyone.  When God lays someone on our hearts, we must plant seeds until He directs us to stop.  When someone questions why I spend time helping someone that has caused a lot of problems at work, I simply tell them it’s not my prerogative to give up on her. There are people in my family that haven’t spoken to each other in years and some who have created great chaos for my loved ones.  But when God lays them on my heart, I cannot ignore God’s calling to spread His message to them, even when my family doesn’t understand.  The pain my family goes through because of their inability to forgive is tremendous and it saddens me.  But I must continue to be “too Christian” in every environment I am a part of.  I know it is the only thing that will fix broken relationships and it is one way to glorify God.   

Irwin Lutzer asked the question: What does it mean to live passionately for Christ?  His answer: “To live as if Jesus lives.”  Love the people Jesus loves (everyone); love them the way Jesus loves them (unconditionally); serve in the way Jesus served (humbly and daily).  We have to give up the expectation that the world is going to understand why we live the way we live.  Until someone truly turns their life over to Jesus, our behaviors will be viewed as irrational and naïve. 

The next time I wrong someone, whether it is intentional or not, I pray the person I’m dealing with behaves in a way that is “a little too Christian.”  Heck, I’d even take someone who is striving very hard to meet the minimum requirements!  “A little too Christian” would be a real blessing!

LET YOUR GENTLENESS BE KNOWN TO ALL

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One of the biggest struggles I face in my Christian walk is sharing the Gospel with a gentle, loving spirit.  When someone makes a comment challenging what I believe, I immediately begin to feel angry, frustrated and anxious as I anticipate what they might say or how they will react to His message.  I knew I had a lot to overcome before I could effectively obey God’s command to share His plan of salvation with “the whole world”.  To begin with, I have a fear of talking to people about anything! Over the last four years, I haven’t grown very confident at effectively sharing my testimony, explaining God’s plan of salvation and why we need Jesus.  As I continued to struggle to master the art of “witnessing,” I recalled a book I read after I first became a Christian titled Learning Evangelism from Jesus by Jerram Barrs. Who better to learn evangelism from than Jesus Himself?! The book looks at a number of encounters Jesus had with religious leaders, the Jewish people and other unbelievers and how He handled each situation. As I reviewed the book, I was reminded that the root of my problem is not so much my inability to control my emotions as much as it is a problem of pride and lack of mercy for the lost. 

Deuteronomy 4:29 – “But if you seek the Lord your God from there, you will find him, if, indeed, you seek him with all your heart and soul.”

For most of my life, I let pride keep me from God.  Pride kept me from listening to sincere Christians and reading the Bible without constantly objecting to its words.  It was only after I began to earnestly seek Him that my pride took a back seat to my desire to find out who God really is.  I was blessed to have a few Christians in my life who shared their experiences and knowledge with patience, love and gentleness.  I didn’t have anyone belittling me or “assaulting” me with their knowledge or religious practices.  They answered my questions and suggested material to read after I talked with them.  Now that I have committed my life to Christ, my job is to share His message and I must do it in the same way these people shared with me, remembering that most may not be ready to hear what I am trying to tell them.  They are waiting for me to say or do one thing that reinforces all the negative things they have come to believe about Christ’s followers.

Luke 18:14 – “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

For the past three years, Christmas has brought a fair amount of anxiety to me as I watch and listen to Christians lamenting our culture’s efforts to remove Christ from our observance of this holiday and deciding to prove their love for Christ by insisting everyone use the phrase “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”  This year I read the most disheartening post yet in this battle.  It read: “Merry Christmas.  I hope this post offends as many people as possible.”  I suppose on the one hand this message could be interpreted as the sender wanting as many people as possible just to read it and remember that Christmas is about Jesus’ birth, knowing many are offended by Him.  But rest assured most unbelievers will only use it to confirm the widespread belief that Christians believe themselves to be “holier than thou,” self-righteous, and uncaring.  No, a conscious effort to offend is not the way to convince them to seek God.   Before I found Christ, a message like that would have strengthened my resolve not to be involved with people who had such an attitude.  It saddens me that Christians resort to such tactics and people jump on the bandwagon believing they are fighting a valiant war for their Savior.  But offending people is not how Christ taught us to fight His battle and we must always hold up Him up as our example.

Luke 18:9 – “Jesus also told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else”

I heard Hank Hanegraaff say this past month in a discussion about Christmas in today’s culture: “Pagans are going to fulfill their job description.  The question is will Christians fulfill theirs?”  Our job as a Christian is not to constantly remind unbelievers that they are wrong.  Our job isn’t even to reclaim December as the month to celebrate Jesus’ birth.  Our job ALWAYS is TO LEAD OTHERS TO CHRIST by sharing the Gospel message.  If we were to consistently do that, December could become the month Jesus’ birth once again becomes the main focus.  Those we help find Christ will realize they have been wrong through our testimonies and acts of love towards them, not through phrases meant to offend.  We have to remember where unbelievers are and stop expecting them to behave like believers.  We must guard against pride and a critical spirit.  Jerram Barrs reminds us who Jesus will hold accountable for wrong motives (Learning Evangelism from Jesus): “We do not see Jesus condemning the sinners in the world; rather, He condemns the leaders of God’s people with His severest words.”

I spent some time during the last month talking with a man who claimed to be a believer but all he could tell me was how wrong God has been, how he doesn’t need God to tell him what’s right and wrong, and all the errors and crimes against humanity he finds in the Bible.  Each time I knew I would be talking to him, I found my anger and anxiety rising.  It occurred to me that I needed to learn how to handle this situation calmly and in a way that communicates respect.  This man needed to know that my primary concern is that he comes to a right understanding of God not to argue and get him to admit I’m right and he’s wrong.  Until I can present the Gospel as Christ did, God cannot use me to reach others. I began asking God to remind me of where I was before I surrendered to Him and who I am without Christ. 

Philippians 4:5 – “Let your gentleness be known to all men.”

I also realized I was trying to develop my skills at sharing the Gospel under my own power – forgetting I can rely on the Holy Spirit. Before interacting with this man, I prayed.  I prayed during the conversation and God kept bringing encouraging thoughts to my mind:  it’s OK if I don’t know an answer; it’s OK if the conversation ends and I don’t feel I’ve changed his mind; I am only planting seeds; only God can bring in the harvest.  God brought appropriate Scripture to my mind that might help him see God’s true character.  I allowed God to “proofread” my responses and found myself replacing a LOT of words that reflected pride, sarcasm, arrogance, anger, even shock at some of the things this man was saying.

Isaiah 55:11 – “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void,”

I never got a response from the man after my last message so I don’t know how effective I was or if my words helped him understand God better.  But I know that as long as I speak the Truth in gentleness and kindness, my efforts are never in vain.  I pray God can use my words to lead this person to Him, but, if I blew it in some way, I know God can overcome that.  I do know He used the experience to teach me how to serve Him better.

1 Corinthians 8:1,2-“…Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. “

Sharing God’s Word is what I am called to do to help bring others to understand their need for Jesus.  I do not share His message to demonstrate my knowledge about Him.  I don’t share it to be “right.”  I talk to unbelievers for one reason only – in hopes they will seek Christ. 

Jerram Barrs: “…if I have a hard heart toward the unbelievers and sinners around me, then it is a certain sign that I do not have a good understanding of my own sin and unbelief, nor of my own need before Jesus for His continual mercy and forgiveness.”

ME IS A HARD HABIT TO BREAK

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I know our focus on self is nothing new.  It’s human nature.  As Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes “There is nothing new under the sun.”  Since Cain killed Abel, man’s priority has been himself.  The degree of self-absorption in the world is a cycle – it peaks, and then subsides.  Each generation feels more justified in elevating self and the consequences of decisions made during the peak times are disastrous – the value of human life declines , violence increases, God is put on trial, morality becomes relative, selfish desires overtake morality as a basis for personal and political decisions, and individuals emphasize their rights without acknowledging responsibilities.  As self-absorbed as we are today, I often wonder what life will look like for my grandchildren.    

Luke 9:23-24 -“If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

In my 20’s I told myself that I wasn’t going to waste my life being unhappy.  I read somewhere that if I was unhappy, my spouse and children could not possibly be happy as they would suffer the effects of my misery.  That sounded logical and I bought it hook, line and sinker.  If something in my life wasn’t going the way I thought it should, I changed it or got rid of it.  The few times I did stop to think about how my lifestyle was affecting others, I was convinced I was saving them from having to live with an unhappy me.  The thought that this way of living was me-centered never crossed my mind.  I was afraid of getting old and having regrets.  Living a life centered on me became such a habit that much of the time I wasn’t even aware that’s what I was doing. 

As I struggled with confidence and trying to fit into the world, I bought into the idea that it was a self-esteem issue, my locus of control was out of whack, as I learned in a college class.  The gist of this theory is that in order to enjoy life we must believe that we have the ability to control the events in our lives.  My boss once said to me, “Stop walking into a room wondering what everybody thinks about you.  Walk in and ask yourself what you think about them.”  He was getting closer to the right answer, but still missed the mark.  Even the solutions to my “me problem” left me focusing on myself!    

Despite being assured that putting myself first in life was a sure path to a happy life, at fifty years old I had nothing but regrets.  I was no closer to feeling comfortable in the world than I had been in my 20’s and 30’s.  We justify putting ourselves first in so many ways – we have a “right”, we expect life to be fair, the world tells us to put ourselves first.  We live in a self-centered society that approves of all of this.  We’re told to build our self-esteem, achieve self-actualization or self-realization.  We’re encouraged to find ourselves and never get so involved with others that we “lose our identity.”  It doesn’t work; we only end up getting buried deeper in ourselves. 

Philippians 2:3 – “Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself.”

Then I committed my life to Christ.  I thought my “me problem” was solved.  After all, I was living for Jesus now.  But it crept into my Christian life.  I went to church waiting for people to come to me.  I quit going when I wasn’t getting what I needed.  I waited for people in the church to help me without asking.  I expected my church to provide the things I needed.  I hesitated to make friends because I dwelt on my past life and used it as an excuse to keep people at arm’s length.  My husband didn’t attend church so I felt lonely and sorry for myself.  It was all about me and the problems I was encountering as a new Christian. I wasn’t focusing on Jesus – I was still focused on myself.  I had moments when I was aware of what I was doing and I would tell my daughter “Me is a hard habit to break.”  Finally, it sunk in.  God began making me aware of how many times I thought about my Christian walk in terms of “me, my, I.” 

Romans 7:15 – “For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate.”

I began to look for the part of God’s truth that would put me on the right path once and for all.  Each time I thought I had found it, I failed again and each time found it harder to forgive myself for not being able to master this problem.  I began to think that my “me habit” was unconquerable.

Then I ran across Steven Cole’s Bible Study “Following Self or Jesus” at Bible.Org (Lesson #43).  He assures us that “dying to self is a daily task.”  I found comfort in that.  It gave me a different battle plan.  Rather than looking for one single answer that would rid me of the problem, I had to begin to look at it as a daily battle with the potential that each day’s struggle may demand a different answer.  But the answer will always be found in God’s truth.  When my emotions or desires tell me to act in a way that’s opposite of God’s commands, I must choose God’s way.  And I can only do that by being silent and remembering God’s Words.  In order to do that, I must be familiar with them.  Reading my Bible every day is the key.  Praying for strength and wisdom is the other tool I use.  While Steven Cole reminds us it’s a daily struggle, I suggest it is a struggle in each situation we deal with.

Read Steven Cole’s words on the role of self-esteem in Christian life (Following Self or Jesus? Lesson #43):   Thirty years ago, the teaching that Christians should love themselves and have proper self-esteem was virtually unheard of in evangelical circles.   …, for many years I taught that we need “proper” self-esteem. But then I came to see that the entire teaching is opposed to and condemned by Scripture. And I have grown increasingly concerned that because of the pervasiveness of this false teaching, there are many who think that they’re following Jesus, when actually they are only following self. They have been taught that the Christian faith and even Christian ministry are the avenues toward self-fulfillment. They’ve been told that Jesus will help you learn to love yourself, when in fact Jesus taught nothing of the kind. 

Taking up your cross is not something you accomplish in an emotional moment of spiritual ecstasy or dedication. You never arrive on a spiritual mountaintop where you can sigh with relief, “I’m finally there! No more death to self!” Nor are there any shortcuts or quick fixes to this painful process. The need for dying to self is never finished in this life; it must be a daily thing.  …When selfish thoughts (“I have my rights! I don’t have to take this!”) crowd your mind, you nail them to the cross by praying, “Lord Jesus, You gave up all Your rights, took on the form of a servant and became obedient to death on the cross for me. Help me to display that same attitude right now” (Phil. 2:5-8).

If, like me a few years ago, you have been taken in by the self-esteem teaching, I encourage you to re-evaluate it in light of all Scripture, especially, Luke 9:23. You won’t find a single verse telling you to build your self-esteem or to love yourself more.

Love Christ, put Him first.  Listen to what you’re saying to yourself in each situation.  When you hear any reference to yourself, consciously make yourself focus on Jesus.  It’s an ongoing struggle because our sin nature still resides in us, but you can build the habit of re-focusing on Jesus and doing things His way.  You’ll find your value only in Him.  He counted you worthy to die on the cross for. 

Romans 5:7, 8 – “ (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.)But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

UNEQUALLY YOLKED

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I’ve heard the Bible referred to as an Owner’s Manual for humans – the “manufacturer” provides us with operating instructions that we should follow to insure we perform at optimum level. There are many things that God sets out for us in the Bible on how we are to live, some are things we should not do, others are things we should do.  Most people view these directions from God as arbitrary rules He gives that take all the fun out of life or take away our freedom to make our own choices. But our “manufacturer,” our Creator, is love in its purest sense so we can know that all of His directions will make our lives as good as they can possibly be when we obey them.

 We can see how many of God’s directions are in our best interests: do not murder, do not bear false witness, do not commit adultery, and help the poor are principles that obviously make our lives better.  Then there are things that God tells us to do or abstain from where the benefits aren’t so obvious: turn the other cheek, be humble, sexual purity.  These things are either opposite of how the world tells us to live or we don’t agree personally with them – perhaps both.

I was not a committed follower of Jesus until I was fifty years old, and by that time there were many things in my life that ran counter to His commandments.  The things I didn’t understand as beneficial I simply ignored or decided they didn’t apply to me.  Prior to December, 2009, God was just a religion for me – a choice I made about what I was going to believe in.  It wasn’t necessary for people in my life to share that belief.  I was divorced and I didn’t choose the men in my life based on their religion or lack of one. My beliefs didn’t impact my life in any real way.  I didn’t make choices based on them and I didn’t view the world through that lens.    

2 Corinthians 6:14-18 – “14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?  What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God;…”

All of that changed when I committed my life to Jesus.  He became more than merely a religious choice.  I understood who He was, what He did for me and why I needed Him.  I wanted to live my life for Him and be obedient to the way He directs us to live in every area of my life.  As my faith and trust in Him increased, I began to change the things in my life that weren’t in line with His direction. 

At the time I had been living with my boyfriend of eleven years.  I knew exactly what God desired for me to do in that situation.  But, there was another issue – my boyfriend was not a believer.  I knew the Bible said something about being unequally yolked but I struggled to understand how obeying this principle would be of any great benefit to my life.  After eleven years together, I still cared deeply about him.  Our relationship wasn’t perfect but I had never felt so secure and loved in my entire life.  I spent the next year going back and forth as to what I should do.  If I decided that I should not marry an unbeliever, then I would be on my own and my financial situation was a mess.  My children and grandchildren loved him and I didn’t want to put them through another broken relationship – I had done that to them too many times in my life.  With every ounce of human pride I possessed, I decided that I would forego this direction from God and prove Him wrong!  I dismissed God’s word that being unequally yolked was something to avoid and told myself I would be able to live a full Christian life with an unbelieving husband.  I was also very confident I would make a believer out of him.  We were married in March, 2011.    

Colossians 2:20 – “Therefore, … you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world,”

At first, there were few problems.  Changes in my life came slowly and I didn’t fully understand my conversion experience.  I walked in my Christian life most of the time, but reverted back to our worldly ways in order to spend time with my husband.  But, as time went on, I became convicted about most of the things we had enjoyed doing together and couldn’t participate in them anymore.  The more I learned about Jesus the more I wanted to talk about Him.  My husband couldn’t understand this and asked that I not bring it up with his family.  He would walk away annoyed when I started discussing Jesus when we were with friends.  I began attending church more regularly, listening to Christian music and popular evangelists but I couldn’t talk with him about the things I learned or the emotions I experienced.  We disagreed about insignificant things that made up our daily routine like television shows or radio programs because I saw how the subject matter offends God.  Discussions about world events were being seen in two totally different perspectives and we stopped discussing them because we could find no common ground about their implications or their root causes.  As my passion for Jesus grew so did the distance between my husband and me.    

1 Corinthians 3:19 – “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

I came to understood that, while my husband is still “of this world” I no longer am.  He is a kind, generous, loving man but his priority is worldly things and securing our earthly future. One day he said to me “I believe in God.  I just don’t want to worship Him like you do.” He doesn’t understand that God must be our first priority nor how all of the things we have are blessings from God, believing instead they are a result of his hard work.  I have no fear of something happening that would take away everything we have – I know God will take care of me.  He has no such comfort.  I want God to be the center of our relationship and our home, but he doesn’t understand the need for that.  He understands the basics of Jesus, but can’t understand why we need Him.  Until recently, he didn’t believe there is a part of us that will live forever.  Now that he understands we have an eternal soul, he believes he is a good enough person to gain admission into heaven, although he’s not fully convinced of its reality.  His confidence is in the things of this world and I know how undependable and temporary these things are.  Because of his worldly focus I cannot devote our resources – time, money, space, material possessions – as fully to God as I know we should. 

1 Peter 3:1 – “Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives,”

I know the ramifications of denying Jesus and my concern for my husband’s eternal soul weighs heavy on me.  At first I spent a lot of time preaching and chastising him for his unbelief. I displayed an arrogance about how I was right and he was wrong. When I tried to tell him the things I was learning, there was no love in my voice.  I was angry and prideful and scared for him.  I came home from church feeling lonely and sorry for myself and would barely speak to him.  All I could focus on was how wrong he was.  I believed if I just kept talking that someday I would say exactly the thing that would turn him into a believer.  Then I read 1 Peter 3:1 and God drew my mind to the words “without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives.”  It was time to draw up a new game plan!

I gave control of this situation over to God a few months ago.  My role in saving my husband is to show God’s love in every situation – I make it my goal each day.  After coming home from work or church, I let him know I am happy to see him and kiss him before doing anything else.  When I feel annoyed at a comment he makes or offended at a television show he’s watching, I don’t preach at him anymore.  I give him my attention when I can or find something else to occupy my time, but make sure to comment only if I can be positive.  If I can’t come up with something positive, I just smile – we both know where my thoughts are without me having to say a word.  And I see it paying off. I am beginning to see a softening in him, an understanding of the importance of Jesus in my life and a willingness to read some of the material I have “laying around!” From time to time I tell him about something I’ve read or done and he listens more closely, takes more of an interest.  I never go against God’s commandments for my life and my husband has come to respect this new life I have.  I know I am blessed that we don’t fight about it and he doesn’t insist I “change back.”  My biggest challenge is being patient and let God work in this.  Some days I find the process fascinating, other days frustrating. 

1 Corinthians 7:12-14 – “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”

My husband is the only one in this relationship that has the prerogative to leave.  As a believer, that is not an option for me.  I pray every day that my husband will come to a full knowledge of Jesus.  My struggle until then is to remain strong, be patient and remain obedient so God can use me in His plan to save my husband.  My experience is also a warning to those who don’t understand the impact living life with an unbeliever can have on our Christian walk.  Everything becomes complicated and you can’t give God full control over your marriage or your home because your spouse isn’t a participant.  I know God has forgiven me for my disobedience and every day I must manage the consequences of my choice God’s way.   I find strength in Paul’s words to Timothy: 

1 Timothy 2:3,4 – “ For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,  who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

MY ETERNAL HOME IS……EARTH?!

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Until recently I believed that after we die, we go to heaven where there will be no sickness, tears, sorrow or pain.  I could look forward to having angel wings, playing a harp, and looking down on loved ones for eternity.  The streets there would be paved with gold and there would be pearly gates. It was all rather surreal and, while I desired to go there, it seemed like something more akin to a fairy tale than a real place.  When I finally understood the reality of God, these notions of heaven didn’t fit with what I had learned about Him and His plans for us.  Surreal and magical is not the mode in which I had learned God operates.

“…the world in which Adam and Eve lived would have been the perfect temperature, the perfect humidity, without pests or diseases, and without anything that would detract from their enjoyment of knowing God in a perfect, undiluted way.  Surely, this is what is meant by the word ‘paradise’.” What Was Life Like In the Garden of Eden Before Sin?  by Robert Driskell on August 7, 2012

When God created humans He put them in the Garden of Eden where He planned for them to live forever.  If the Garden was to be a place of eternity, it would have had to have been a perfect place designed to meet all our needs.  It would have included all the extras God gives us to demonstrate how much He loves us.  In my mind, a place like the Garden of Eden would be a wonderful place to spend eternity and more desirable and realistic than a heaven with streets paved of gold.     

 Revelation 21:4 – “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Life here is short.  We’re given 70 or 80 years max then we’re taken to another place to live forever.  While this world certainly is challenging and full of undesirable things, there are moments when we can sense what God actually had in mind:  the beauty of nature; loving people; comfort, joy and peace; intimacy with God.  When I turned my life over to Christ, I was more aware of His goodness and as my life settled into the calm, peaceful existence God wanted for me, I began to see one of the ways He shows His love is in the variety of things He gave us to enjoy.  I’m sure streets of gold are beautiful, but can they compare with the beauty of lush, green acres of grass?  How will cities of gold compare to the breathtaking view of budding trees and flowers in springtime? Why did God go to such pains to create so many beautiful flowers here, why so many different shades of green? I came to believe that these creations could not possibly have been meant to be temporal – these amazing things were more suited for God’s original eternal plan.

I read a book where someone expressed concern that they will be bored in heaven.  They could not fathom how an existence where all we do is praise God could be fulfilling or sitting on a cloud and playing a harp would be an ideal existence.  I had never thought about being bored in heaven, but after reading that, I began to think about those times in life when I had accomplished something or did something for someone that brought such joy.  The amazing feeling of love I get from knowing Jesus is sometimes so overwhelming that I can’t even express the emotions I experience. These feelings are also God’s gift to us.  Although they would need to be fine-tuned so we are doing them in a way that is not self-serving, realizing our potential, serving others, and loving God are great sources of fulfillment, peace and joy. I added them to my list of things I hoped heaven would include.

2 Corinthians 12:2-4 – “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.”

As I learned about God’s nature and how He works in the world, I began to realize the things I believed about heaven probably weren’t accurate.  As my theories eroded, I still knew it to be a real place and I yearned to know the truth about it.  I thought I had found my answer when books about people who had visited heaven and returned to earth came to my attention – I could know about heaven by reading their experiences. But these accounts only added to my confusion.  Their stories were even more surreal than the beliefs I had held.  If these people had actually gone to a real place, their stories should match.  If three people go to Hawaii, I should find things in their stories that match.  I found little, if anything, similar in the stories I took the time to read.  Each person’s experience included such amazing things that another person who had actually gone to the same place would surely have told us about them.  I can’t imagine that Colton Burpo’s rainbow-colored horse is a fact of heaven that Don Piper simply forgot to mention!  I’m sure these people had some kind of experience, but I do not believe it was a visit to the actual “place” of heaven. Furthermore, the apostle Paul is quite clear about John’s visit to heaven and the fact that he was not permitted to talk about the things he had seen and heard; as Hank Hanegraaff puts it in his book AfterLife: “Paul did not so much as countenance writing a 67th book of the Bible titled 90 Minutes in Heaven.” The apostles John and Paul knew better than to talk about a visit to heaven and would not pronounce a definitive conclusion about the experience – they wrote what God directed them to write and focused on taking the Gospel to unbelievers.  Finally, since no new revelations are to be forthcoming following those given by Jesus’s eyewitnesses, we can safely dismiss the claims made by any visitors to heaven or hell.

Mark 4:39-41 – “Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.  But He said to them, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?”And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, “Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!””

I love reading about Jesus turning water into wine, healing sick people and raising people from the dead.  As a child, I equated His miracles with magic, much like Mary Poppins was able to do!  Even as an adult, my understanding about them was more along the lines of magic.  God can do anything He wants to do.  Then I heard a Christian teacher talking about how Jesus’s miracles were used to display His power over nature: water fermenting, bodies healing, filling fishing nets with fish, calming storms, and walking on water.  Processes that take months or years, Jesus was able to bring to completion in seconds.  Forces of nature were altered with His words.  I had never thought of miracles in this way.  Jesus didn’t perform “magic.”  He exercised His power over our physical world, operating in His world as only He is able to do.  Somehow that realization made God more of a reality. While I still understood that His miracles were supernatural, understanding that they are a demonstration of His power over the things He created moved them from “magic” to a more understandable and believable phenomenon.

Hank Hanegraaff in his book AfterLife:  “…the imagery of Revelation is not intended to tell us what heaven looks like but rather is intended to tell us what heaven is like.”

I wanted an explanation about our life after death that was on the level of what I had learned about Jesus’s miracles.  As my confusion and curiosity increased, God brought messengers and messages to my attention with a new level of understanding from the Holy Spirit.  As I learned more about Biblical interpretation I learned about the imagery, metaphors and other figures of speech used to communicate ideas and aspects which we would not otherwise understand.  Interposing these literary tools on Bible passages about our life after death brought me to the understanding I sought. 

 2 Corinthians 5:8 – “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord”

When we die, our soul separates from our physical body and we are present with God.  Immediately upon death, we will know God as a reality and, for those who rejected Him the experience of hell (separation from God) begins as they understand God’s great love and exactly what it is they have rejected.  Those who have died experience God apart from their physical bodies.  This phase of life after death is referred to as relational, rather than locational, as you could not find a map of all the existing universes and stick a pin in the spot where heaven is.  This doesn’t make it any less real.  It is merely a supernatural way of existence until the final phase of life after death begins.  We will exist spiritually until Jesus returns to this world.   

Isaiah 65:17 – “See,I will create new heavens and a new earth

Isaiah 66:22 – “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord,….”

Revelation 21:1,2 – “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

When Jesus returns, the final phase of life after death begins (Hank Hanegraaff refers to it as “life after life-after-life).  At this time, all people who have died will be resurrected and their souls will be returned to a physical body.  Including those still living at the time of Jesus’s return, all people will receive eternal, perfect bodies like that Jesus had when He was resurrected – no longer subject to decay and deterioration.  Jesus will also bring a new earth – a newly-created earth that, like our new bodies, will not decay or rot, where God will live among us.  Christ’s sincere, committed followers will live in this new, perfect, eternal world going about a life much like we know now, but totally free from sin:  no greed, no murder, no lust, no covetousness, no lies.  God will reign and we will live for eternity just as He planned in the beginning, in a new Garden of Eden where sin is no longer a possibility.  It is not an eternal home of clouds, angel wings and harps, but a world much like what we experience now, free from the things that bring us sorrow and despair.  There will be things that will be different in the eternal world, but it will resemble this world more so than a place where magical creatures embody the images that have been used to describe the experience.

Although we can accurately say we will go to heaven after we die, we will spend eternity on a “new earth.”  And, to me, that matches up perfectly with God’s working in the world thus far and the promises He has given us.  It is in keeping with the reality of who God is and His original plan for us.

Genesis 1:26, 27 – “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness,so they may ruleover the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth,and over all the creatures that moveon the earth.” God created humankindin his own image, in the image of God he created them,male and female he created them.”

THE TRUE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

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In December, 2009, I yielded my life to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, began dwelling within me.  It is a wondrous thing to think about. In his book “The Prayer Life” Andrew Murray tells us exactly who the Holy Spirit is and how we must think about Him:

 “What was the peculiar privilege of the disciples, who were always in fellowship with him?  It was uninterrupted enjoyment of the presence of the Lord Jesus.  It was because of this they were so sorrowful at the thought of His death.  They would be deprived of that presence.  He would be no longer with them.  How, under these circumstances, did the Lord Jesus comfort them?  He promised that the Holy Spirit from heaven should so work in them a sense of the fullness of His life and of His personal presence that He would be even more intimately near and have more unbroken fellowship with them than ever they experienced while He was upon earth.”

 Initially the Holy Spirit’s presence in my life brought about some dramatic changes.  I couldn’t wait to find time in my day to read my Bible – it became much more than a book. I noticed things in the stories I had never noticed before, understood things I never understood before.  The more I learned about Jesus, the more I wanted to know.  I accepted the things God told me to do, even when I disagreed with them or when they put me at odds with the world.  I rid myself of habits I had struggled with for years.   I hurt for people where I hadn’t even noticed their suffering before.  I began to realize how far from God the world was getting.  I experienced peace and joy for the first time in my adult life.

 1 Corinthians 6:19 – “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own,”

 While many of the powers Christians were given during the first years of the church can still be given, they are no longer the norm.  Certain gifts were given during that time to insure the Gospel would spread.  Speaking in tongues was necessary so that the Gospel could be taken to people who did not understand the language of the first converts.  Healing and exorcising demons was widespread and served as evidence that Jesus was truly the son of God.  News of those events attracted a lot of attention and word of them spread quickly in a world with none of the modern modes of mass communication we rely on today. 

 In our world today, confusion about the Holy Spirit abounds.  One Christian leader stated that the Church would never tolerate this kind of abuse of Jesus. Too many who claim to be committed followers of Christ insist on visible signs of spirituality.  Some decide we will be able to speak in foreign tongues as proof we are indwelled with the Holy Spirit; others believe we will have healing powers, the ability to avoid all sickness, or will amass great wealth as evidence that God dwells within us. Some are led to dress differently as a visible sign of the change they have experienced.  Some begin to live differently than the rest of the world, renouncing modern conveniences. But the most wondrous power of the Holy Spirit is in things we cannot see: understanding God and His Word, a full understanding of Jesus’s teachings, peace in the midst of trouble, assurance when we find ourselves doubting God, comfort during difficult trials, boldness to speak the Truth in a world that does not want to hear it. The Holy Spirit will even help us pray when we find it difficult to express our thoughts to God!  These are the things we experience that insure He is with us. 

Romans 8:26 – “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

 I know that I don’t fully understand His power and my faith in Him is often very weak.  I tend to think I’m on my own again, but nothing could be further from the truth.  In another passage from “The Prayer Life,” Andrew Murray writes:

 “When a Christian does not yield entirely to the leading of the Spirit…he lives, without knowing it, under the power of ‘the flesh.’  This life of ‘the flesh’ manifests itself in many different ways.  It appears in the hastiness of spirit, or the anger which so unexpectedly arises in you, in the lack of love for which you have so often blamed yourself; in the pleasure found in eating and drinking, about which at times your conscience has chidden you; in that seeking for your own will and honour, that confidence in your own wisdom and power, that pleasure in the world, of which you are sometimes ashamed before God.  All this is life ‘after the flesh.’”

 And, though I don’t want to admit it that is my answer:  I am still living life under the power of ‘the flesh.’  As God leads me to do certain things, I refuse, giving in to my excuses and fears.  I still look for the things that make my life comfortable and easy.  Instead of taking life a day at a time, I constantly look forward, hampering my ability to call on Him for help with my present situation.  After 50 years of doing things under my own power, I struggle to let go and truly give it all to Him.  But just as I did in December, 2009, each day I must yield myself to Him in the same way.  I must devote time each day to be with Him in silence, without imposing my will and thoughts on Him.  Again, I refer to Andrew Murray’s words (from Abiding in Christ):

 “And, last of all, even when the soul seeks truly to enter the way of faith, there is the impatience of the flesh, which forms its judgment of the life and progress of the soul not after the divine but the human standard.  In dealing with all this, and so much more, blessed the man who learns the lesson of stillness, and fully accepts God’s word: “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”  Each time he listens to the word of the Father, or asks the Father to listen to his words, he dares not begin his Bible reading or prayer without first pausing and waiting, until the soul be hushed in the presence of the Eternal Majesty.”

 Psalm 46:10 – “ Be still, and know that I am God;”

 The Holy Spirit’s unseen gifts are the greatest.  I have little interest in speaking a language I’ve never learned unless it is needed to lead another to Christ.  I have little interest in the gift of healing unless it is God’s plan for my life.  God does tell us that every believer will receive gifts that will speak volumes about what Christ can do in the lives of those who follow Him: peace, joy, wisdom.  I want to exhibit those things so a life dedicated to Christ is desired by everyone I am around. 

 Romans 15:13 – “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

LIPS ARE A SNARE

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Over the last 50-some years of life, I’ve hurt a lot of people with my words, written and spoken.  Each time it happens, I ask myself “When will you learn?!!” and vow to do better.  Then it happens again…and again….and again.  Just the other day I used the wrong word with someone I love very dearly and I know it hurt her.  It was totally unintentional but had I took the time to think about my response I could have chosen a better word to use.  In one careless milli-second, I caused pain for somebody I deeply care about with one little word.  Whoever said “Sticks and stones my break my bones but words will never hurt me” was dead wrong.

I want Matthew 12:36 taped to the inside of my eyelids:  “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,” If that doesn’t give me reason to choose every word carefully, nothing will.  I’m already formulating my explanation to God about this one incident and all I can come up with is, “I was in a hurry and didn’t stop and think.”  But, as I sit and contemplate that explanation, I know He’s not gonna buy it.  God’s gonna look at me, shake His head, and, if I’m lucky, ask me to take another stab at it.

God will insist on the truth and the truth is my word only reflected what was in my heart.  The Bible is pretty clear: our “tongue” issue is a heart issue.  The real reason I used the word I did was because I was frustrated and didn’t want the situation I had been presented with messing up my good mood.  It was a situation that we have dealt with for some time and I struggled to find patience to deal with it again.  It was a poor choice of words, but, given my attitude about it, I suspect had I stopped to consider using a different one it would have been similar to what I chose.  Instead of hurrying to respond to make sure my feelings were communicated, I should have prayed through the emotion until I was at a place where my response would have brought comfort rather than pain.

Matthew 15: 18 – “But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.”

During 2011, I used a Bible reading plan that included reading a chapter from Proverbs every day.  Some days I would read two.  There are 31 chapters, so over the course of a year I read each chapter more than 15 times.  It impacted me in a lot of ways, but most significantly it made me very aware of how I have not been as careful with my tongue as I should be and how dangerous that little muscle is.  I have used my words to intentionally cause someone pain, to make myself feel I’m better than someone else, to lie and to gossip.  I say spiteful things to my spouse when I feel hurt by him.  I’ve spent way too many hours apologizing for letting my emotions determine my response to people I work with and people I love.

James 3: 7, 8 – “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind.  But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”

Last year my father-in-law died suddenly and I took some time off from work.  Before leaving, I filled out leave forms so I wouldn’t have to deal with it when I returned.  My first morning back, our work leader told me she needed some additional forms as soon as I could get them to her.  I don’t remember everything I said, but I know I informed her that whatever forms she needed would not be forthcoming!  I was so mad my voice was shaking.  She responded by telling me that our manager had missed some and they had to be filled out.  I relented a bit and told her I would get to them whenever I could and began working on something else.  She hadn’t taken more than three steps away from my desk before God brought to my mind verses from the book of Proverbs.  Our work leader has a lot of responsibilities and, when it comes to tracking attendance, she doesn’t always get what she needs.  Knowing this, I realized my outburst had only made her job harder.  I was embarrassed and the things I said made me look foolish.  I took a deep breath and went right to her desk.  I said, “I am SO sorry for my behavior.  It was wrong and I hate that I made your morning and your job so much harder than it already is.”  She looked at me and said, “That’s OK.  I’m kind of used to it.”  I told her it was NOT OK and I hoped she could forgive me.  That was not an easy conversation but it changed our relationship.  And it highlighted for me that I do not want to be known as the “fool” who can’t control her tongue.

Ephesians 4:29 – “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

It is a daunting task to “tame the tongue.”  James (Chapter 3) tells us it is not possible.  So we must rely on the Holy Spirit’s power rather than our own.  My go-to reaction is anger, frustration, impatience.  As I look at my tongue problem, I have to be willing to admit my true heart problem.  By nature and nurture, I am not the most loving person.  As I work to turn this area of my life over to Christ, I have to remind myself how Christ loved me when I was not anywhere close to being the kind of person He wants me to be.  He loves me even on those days when I choose to disobey Him.   I have to learn to love people just as God loves me.  I have to demonstrate His love to others by my actions AND my words.  In order to do that, I can’t allow my emotions to determine my response – obedience and God’s truth are more reliable.  I’ll know I’ve made progress when my words consistently communicate love and patience instead of frustration, anger or judgment.

James 3:2 – “If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.”

One day on a break at work, I looked up verses that talk about the tongue and/or our words.  I soon found that many of these verses also include the term “fool” (interesting!).   So I expanded my search to include that term, also.  In the span of about 15 minutes, I found more than 50 verses.  My words about words will never measure up to those God has given us so I’ll direct you to some of the verses I found (there are many more).  I would also recommend, as I often do, to read a chapter from Proverbs every day.  Once you’ve finished, go back and read the book again.  Keep it up for a year and you will have one more tool to use in your battle against the mighty tongue!

Proverbs 11:12 – “ Whoever derides their neighbor has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue.”

Proverbs 15:2 – “ The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.”

Proverbs 15:4 – “ The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.”

Proverbs 18:21 – “ The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

Proverbs 21:23 – “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”

Proverbs 10:19 – “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

Proverbs 10:21 – “The lips of the righteous nourish many, but fools die for lack of judgment.”

Proverbs 12:18 – “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing”

Proverbs 18:2 – “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”

Proverbs 18:7 – “A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul”

Proverbs 17:28 – “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”

THIS IS NOT MY HOME

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In my Bible study I have come to the end of the four Gospels.  Along with Scripture I have been reading The Fourfold Gospel by J.W. McGarvey, recommended with the chronological reading plan I found.  McGarvey combines the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and, as much as possible, puts all the events of Jesus’s life and resurrection in the order they happened.  It’s enlightening to read how Jesus’s teaching progressed and how the apostles’ understanding of His purpose here fluctuates.  Just when I think they understand His kingdom is not an earthly one, they start asking which of them is greater and request they be allowed to sit next to Him in His kingdom.  I am at the point where Judas has betrayed Jesus.  Soon I know His apostles will flee from Him in fear of being punished by the Jewish leaders and the Roman government.  As I learn new things about these events from McGarvey’s commentary, the story of Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion intensifies my emotions about the world’s rejection of God’s Son.

Matthew 26:40: “And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?”

I moved away from God this past week.  I didn’t read my Bible most days, had some minor health issues that sidelined me and spent too much time in deep thought about too many things.  The days when I did pick up His Word, I was reading about the Jewish leaders building their case against Jesus, Judas carrying out his plan to betray Christ, and followers of Jesus leaving Him.  The reading material and my physical and emotional condition were not a good mix.  I felt hopeless about leading others to Jesus.  It’s a tall order and we generally have more failures than successes.  Of course, the mood of the week insured the failures were foremost in my mind.

I spent little time in prayer.  I talk to God constantly but this week I just didn’t know what to say to Him.  I felt angry at Him for not doing more to prepare others to hear His word and be more receptive to Him; angry that He asks us to do such a difficult thing.  I was angry at my friends and family who haven’t accepted Him; for being blind to the truth and not willing to learn about Jesus.  I understand that I may not be the one to lead them to Him and that increased my anger and frustration.  Because of the life I lived before finding Christ, I have little credibility with them and I wondered how God could possibly ever use me.  I know I have to keep listening to God and what He is trying to do in my life and be open to it, but this week I had little fight in me; I simply refused to call on the power of the Holy Spirit.  I spent the week in a valley and instead of moving closer to God, I kept moving farther away.

As I read about the end of Christ’s time on earth, it became clear that nothing has really changed.  People continue to misinterpret Jesus and His teachings, they crucify Him over and over and over, and few make Him the priority in their life.  I’m surrounded by too many people who dismiss God and all that He’s done in their lives.  They’re not thankful for the blessings they have received from Him, they live believing their answers to life’s problems are better than God’s ways.  They blame God for all the bad stuff yet call on Him for help when tragedies occur.  Much like David’s lament about enemies who prosper, I tired this week of seeing prideful, arrogant, worldly people experience great blessings and comfort in this world.

I fled from my Savior this week.  While I didn’t flee in fear of being punished, I fled from living as He has directed me to live.  I shifted my focus from Him to me.   The apostles fell asleep even though Jesus asked them to stay awake should He need them as He faced the suffering He would soon have to endure.   I failed Christ, too, as I gave in to weariness of living in a world I just don’t fit into.

John 15:16: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit,”

When the apostles learned of Christ’s resurrection, they looked back at the things Jesus had done and the things He had told them and they were able to put the pieces together.  They went from hiding in fear to boldly proclaiming the news to the world.  As I struggle to move forward in my Christian life, looking back at what God has done builds my faith and trust.  I see how He has kept every single promise He has ever made.  Today I will spend time in His Word and in prayer in order to feel His presence and remind myself how good God is and that His plan for me is a good one.  I’ll be reminded that no matter how small my role is in His Kingdom, it is an important one.  Jesus chose those twelve men to be His apostles because He knew they could do the things He needed them to do to fulfill His plan.  I must know that He chose me, too, and I can be confident that He chose me because I have something He can use to build His kingdom, even when I cannot fathom what that is.

James 4:8: “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.”

Living away from God is agonizing.  Spending the last week there reminds me how desperately I want to help others avoid eternity separated from Him.  I will continue to trust that He uses me to plant seeds and I must be about His business.   I cannot let my doubts and frustration tear down my faith in Him.

I know how the Gospel story ends and because of the things Jesus told His apostles during their three years together, they were able to put the pieces together and come to a full understanding of who Jesus really is, what He was here to do, and how they were to carry on with His purpose.  Despite living in a world with no mass communication, twelve followers spread the news of Jesus throughout the civilized world so that all people could receive God’s plan for their salvation.   As hopeless as I feel sometimes, their mission must have seemed infinitely more impossible.  I also know that Jesus warned us of the immensity of the task and that few would believe.  As we work to lead others to Him, we have to remember how far apart His ways are from the world’s ways.  Planting seeds is never a waste of time and it is all we do in the process of leading others to Him.  Even though we may never see what we have accomplished for Him, it is in faith we keep on doing what He calls us to do.

John 15:19: “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.”

One of my favorite songs is about the fact that this world is not my home:  “All I know is I’m not home yet, this is not where I belong.”  Sometimes the reality of those words has a great impact on me and I long to be where all people love God as He deserves to be loved.  The closer I get to Jesus and realize how much God loves us, the more I struggle to live in a world that rejects Him more and more each day. 

This week won’t be my last struggle, but I pray I’ll handle the next one better!  The down times remind me how great the spiritual warfare is that I’m involved in and the worse thing I can do is flee from the One who can ease my pain.  I’m thankful God has given us what we need to have an abundant life here.  Now I gotta go spend some time with my Father!

John 16:33: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”